Aaron Copland - America's Composer

Aaron Copeland's folk ballets and film music used folk songs that America loved best.

When Aaron Copland died in December 1990, he hadn't composed a note in almost 20 years. It wasn't that he had lost his ability to write new music, nor had he lost any of his considerable fame. On the contrary. He was too busy lecturing and conducting his earlier works to have time to sit down and scratch out new works on paper. Besides that, his latest works had not found favor with the public. He had ventured into the realm of the 12-tone style of Arnold Schoenberg -- ulta-modern sounds that mostly fell on confused ears. Compared to the style of composition for which he was best known and loved, the new music he composed was like a foreign language.

Copland's music evoked images of prairies and mountains by adapting folk melodies, dances and hymns in his compositions. His music recalled the spirit of the frontier -- the unmistakable sound of America being birthed, squalling to be free of its diapers and move on to its Manifest Destiny. Copland's music was a far cry from his own Jewish heritage and the grime-coated streets of New York where he grew up at the beginning of the twentieth century. His music painted vivid pictures of western towns, cattle drives, hoedowns, Saturday night waltzes, gunfights on dusty streets, and Shaker weddings in the verdant mountains of Appalachia. Copland's music conjured up specific images of America's cherished self-image, a land of hard, self-sufficient men and women carving a life for themselves from an untamed frontier. For this reason he was sometimes called "America's composer."

His "Fanfare For The Common Man," for instance, was a tone poem that sketched a pristine, heroic portrait of Joe and Jane American. It is said that the piece inspired painter Norman Rockwell to produce his famous "Four Freedoms" series. In nearly all that he wrote, Aaron Copland captured the indomitable American spirit in music, and laid it out for all the world to see.

Copland came to music late -- he was already in his teens when he began to seriously study music. But he progressed rapidly. Like most young artists and intellectuals during the 1920s, he made an obligatory pilgrimage to Paris to work and study. There he fell under the benevolent eye of Madame Boulanger of the new music school at Fontainbleau. When he returned to New York three years later, Copland had his first commission in hand -- a Concerto For Organ and Orchestra for Madame Boulanger to perform when she came to New York for a concert.

As his fame grew, so did Copland's security. Between 1925 and 1927 he held a Guggenheim grant which helped put bread on the table. His musical style was jazzy and experimental -- much like that of his friend, composer George Gershwin. But Copland longed for a unique style of his own -- something to set him apart from the pack. While Copland sought his niche, he taught, lectured and composed. He even wrote a few books to fill in what spare time he had. He could have made a career as a conductor, but he didn't want that. What he craved more than anything else was a simple, distinctive musical voice, one that would appeal to Everyman.

In 1936, Copland wrote a short piece called "El Salon Mexico" that used melodies and rhythms from south of the border. It was well received. Copland had always been interested in American folk music and suddenly wondered if he could incorporate folk melodies into symphonic music with the same flair as his Hungarian contemporary Bela Bartok had done with his own country's folk songs. Perhaps ballet was the answer. A ballet, unlike a symphony or concerto, told a story and literally dripped with imagery. So two years after "El Salon Mexico," Copland wrote his first folk ballet, "Billy the Kid," complete with a choreographed gunfight. It was a sensation.

Four years later came "Rodeo". Again set in the wild west, "Rodeo" depended even more upon folk songs for themes than did Billy. In fact, Copland used one cowboy song in particular, "I Ride An Old Paint," almost exclusively as background for an entire scene in the ballet. Then he wrapped up the work with a rip-roaring "Hoedown," a wild musical prance that severely taxed even the nimble fingers of expert violinists.

In 1944, dance Martha Graham commissioned a third folk ballet from Copland. This one was entitled "Appalachian Spring" or "Ballet For Martha," and was set in the Appalachian Mountains. It was originally scored for thirteen instruments and included an almost forgotten Shaker hymn, "Simple Gifts". Probably the most successful of his ballets, Copland quickly re-scored the work for full symphony orchestra.

Unlike so many "serious" composers who considered it beneath their dignity to do so, Copland answered when Hollywood called. Producers were well aware of Copland's ability to paint vivid canvasses with music. Now they discovered that when the composer's work welded with images on the screen, the result was electrifying. Nowhere was this more apparent than his musical portrait of an American village in "Our Town" (1940), or California ranch life in "The Red Pony" (1948). It is a testament to his popularity that every one of Copland's film scores have been arranged in suite form and are now regularly performed in concert halls. In fact, almost all of Copland's stage work, including the three ballets, are seldom performed on the boards any more. In symphony concerts, however, they are all standard repertoire.

Copland also wrote numerous chamber works, songs and even two operas. Of these, only a suite of eight folk songs arranged for orchestra and voice "Old American Songs" is regularly performed. His best known opera, "The Tender Land" is primarily performed only as a shortened orchestral suite.

The musical style of Aaron Copland is so well known to the public that the works of other composers who venture into his style are often compared to him. When Randy Newman wrote his delightful score for the film "The Natural", for instance, critics called the music "Coplandesque". No other composer, with the possible exception on Virgil Thompson, has produced music so distinctly American, or so stylistically identifiable, as Copland.

In 1964, Copland was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon Johnson. In his presentation speech, Johnson said that Copland had produced a body of work that Americans could not only be proud of, but with which they could identify. Aaron Copland was truly a composer for America.

© High Speed Ventures 2010